It is July 2020, Singapore, four months since the pandemic has altered daily routines and shrunk mobility. Every book I have read in this time, I have viewed from within what feels like a tunnel. It is a strange place—infused with anticipation and anxiety about the future, interrupted often by the random onset of memories of the past, and buzzing with the sounds, smells, sights, and feel of immediate, material life. Time and space have a dual and surreal quality—ephemeral and conceptual, yet persistent and corporeal. This tunnel demands my attention in a way I have not experienced in a while—I remember friendships I did not know I had forgotten; recall mundane and unphotogenic moments in vacations that had gone without remark; am curious about gaps in my memory of places where I hung out as a teenager. And then, yanked back to the here and now, I notice the way sunlight dances into my study through the blinds, and find fault with chipped paint, unruly ferns, domestic messiness, all of which must have been here before. Reading Mrs Irene Lim’s memoir, 90 Years in Singapore, from this place, I am therefore first struck by her attentiveness, an attentiveness I am rediscovering.
The capacity to plan for the future is not simply an individual skill. Frequently we present it that way—in advice to students, or workshops for the low-income—implying that with a plan, life would be organized, stable, sustainable, and therefore good.
Pandemic life has thrown into sharp relief what was true all along: for any person, the strength of a plan depends on the conditions in which the plan lives. My annual schedule for 2020—a book chapter in February, a talk in March, an article by June, a mid-year trip to visit a BFF, conferences in July and November, field work all year—all this has gone out the window. But what is astonishing, what has always been exceptional, has never been my planning skills, but the stability and predictability of the life of a relatively well-off person in a relatively wealthy country in times of relative peace.
In the past four months, as I stewed in the discomfort of repeatedly cancelling and remaking plans, I have been reminded that the conditions I have taken for granted for years—conditions of predictability, stability, and excess—are in reality unusual, never universally accessible. Now more than ever, the different conditions of individual lives put distance between those who have and those who do not.
In a crisis that has such corporeal dimensions, and which so obviously requires urgent and material responses beyond what my pen can do, I feel intermittent waves of uselessness and despair. What is the purpose of scholarly labor? This is not a new feeling. I know of many others who struggle with being scholars in disciplinary traditions steeped in values of equality and social justice, but making careers in organizational and/or national contexts where this ethos is marginal rather than institutionalized.
Without mitigation strategies on a collective and large scale, the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis will be deeply devastating as well as profoundly unequal. Scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences can interrogate this problem, in order to articulate perspectives which would otherwise not be seen or heard, recognized or legitimized. Proposing analyses, tabling theoretical insights, offering vocabularies and mental frameworks–scholars in various disciplines work at different levels of abstraction, some more obviously problems-oriented and ‘applied’, others more ‘upstream’ and abstract. Taken as a whole, this knowledge diversifies and deepens the range of solutions that are conceivable; it expands the range of interests that must be represented. More than ever, scholars can and must contribute to public discourse about what comes after. With or without institutional support, we need more urgently to pursue scholarship that is attuned to society’s needs. Our scholarship ought to put us in solidarity with, rather than apart from, the society in which we are embedded.
Research can highlight necessary questions, analyses, and solutions. This is useful work but only if we do it—consciously, doggedly, collectively, and if necessary against the tide of approval and reward we habitually seek.
Children’s and adults’ lives and wellbeing are intertwined. With social structures receding and the private sphere literally holding everyone in, the inequalities that we know exist will become more palpable and consequential than ever. This is the feminist sociologist’s nightmare—the work of social reproduction now resting entirely in the household and weighing on certain members within them. The many hands holding the fort together—teachers, bus drivers, canteen operators, tutors, grandparent caregivers, day or afterschool care staff—now stand parted, fingers pried open, a delicate and precious circuit broken.
The unfolding story of COVID-19 is a story of inequalities, long experienced by those who bear its brunt, coming to the surface of our collective consciousness. In the weeks to come, who will care for children? What inequalities will be especially consequential when ‘work from home’ and ‘home-based learning’ kick in? Without institutions and services providing supporting roles and to some extent mitigating gender and class inequalities, parents and children will find their gendered roles and class positions mattering more than ever in shaping their wellbeing, both now and, for some, also in the longer term.
While the crisis is unfolding, it is premature to predict its long-term consequences, and the specifics of how various social groups–separated by income and wealth, age, or household type–will be differently affected. But reflecting on specific components of this definition now can still shed light on the profound impact of this public health crisis on various members of our society.
Together with Ng Kok Hoe (with whom I am collaborating on Minimum Income Standards research), I have written a piece on the coronavirus crisis for Academia.sg. (I am also an editor of Academia.sg, a website maintained by a group of Singaporean academics to promote Singapore studies and to encourage critical debate about the state of intellectual life in Singapore.)
Can we do more? A rationalisation sometimes kicks in: In times of prosperity, people do not need help; in times of need, there are insufficient means to help. This mindset encourages inertia and delays change. The problems that poorer households faced in normal times have not been suspended because of the crisis. All the things that should have been done to help them then, now must be done.
The current crisis illuminates. It shows us where we most need to intervene to strengthen our social policies: Improving wage protection across all low-paying jobs, shoring up job security in new sectors of the economy, strengthening alternative retirement income sources, enhancing the social assistance regime, and extending the provision of public goods like care services.
Pressing ahead with necessary structural reforms will put individuals in a better position to build up buffers against future shocks and reduce the resources required for drastic crisis measures. It will also dampen the disproportionate economic impact on more vulnerable people next time.
Seeing/reading and thinking about other people’s work is often generative and inspiring.
In recent weeks:
I got around to watching Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning film Parasite. Many people had told me I had to see it. The film is indeed, as everyone promised, amazing. Thanks to an invitation from Arts Equator, I had the opportunity to reflect on the film in this review. This is one of those films that stays under your skin for a while. If you haven’t already seen it, do.
Finally, I had the good fortune to preview Cherian George’s Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited (2020). It is the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking book, Air-Conditioned Nation (2000), and this forthcoming book of essays draws from that as well as his more recent Singapore, Incomplete (2017) and a number of new essays. These are my thoughts on the forthcoming Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited:
Cherian George is one of Singapore’s most astute political observers and social commentators. This collection of essays, drawing on events that traverse the last few decades, takes us through intriguing encounters and noteworthy moments in Singapore’s recent past. From political dissidents to governing elites, newspaper editors to bloggers, the presidential election to Hong Lim Park, Professor George reminds us of incidents and people too quickly forgotten or under-interpreted. Each matters because they clear up some puzzle as to how we got here. Even better, they invite us to reconsider: where is ‘here?’ Infused with Cherian’s wit, humor, audacity, and above all with his steadfast idealism and generosity, this is that rare book on politics that encourages clear-headedness and yet holds cynicism at bay. Read it, share it, read it again: this book will spark feelings, stir thoughts, create conversations, engage our muscles for debate and disagreement—all things we deserve as humans living in society.
The book ships on March 13, and you can pre-order a copy here.
Last November I sat down with New Naratif’s Chief Editor, journalist Kirsten Han, in a session organised by Ethos Books to talk about journalism, inequality, precarity, research, writing and more. The recorded conversation is now available for listening on the New Naratif website.
I wrote this some time back. Seems timely now to air it.
What does it mean to “speak out of turn”? It is to speak when one is not supposed to, or towards a person or persons one is not
supposed to speak to, or about
something one is not supposed to speak on. To be seen as or accused of speaking
out of turn is to be reminded one has no right to speak. It is to have one’s views
be cast as illegitimate because of who
one is. It is a kind of illegitimacy that has less to do with the content of
the speech and more with the position of the speaker relative to that of other
speakers in a field.
As a weapon, how does it work? Not everyone can cast this aspersion.
It has to come from a place of actual power. Once cast, a signal is sent that
it is free for all. There is a pile-up, compounding the thing, and attacks get
increasingly personal and vicious.
Speaking out of turn—the existence of such a phenomenon—should alert
us to this: discourse exists within a field
of power. The world of discoursing—of opinions and ideas and truth-claims
moving and traveling and coming into conflict or meeting resonance—is not flat.
Not everyone gets to make truth claims; not everyone gets to accuse others of
speaking out of turn; few get to never experience being accused of speaking out
Because it is not really about substantive content, we see attacks on persons—sometimes as individuals, other times as groups. The marginalization of social groups—sometimes along lines of gender, class, ethnicity, or sexuality—is partly about marginalization in discursive space. Marginality means bearing greater risks of being accused of representing narrow interests, violating larger interests, when speaking. Marginal social groups never get to claim their views as neutral, universal views.
Once there are aspersions cast on someone or group, some whiff that
they are speaking out of turn, substantive arguments become less relevant. If
one insists on following ideas, tracing debate, weighing evidence, one is bound
to be frustrated, confused, perplexed. It works for a while, but then suddenly,
it is all shade—thrown at the speaker (speaking out of turn). You’re crazy. You’re
disrespectful. You’re unpatriotic. You have vested interests. You’re not
qualified. You, you, you. One can try to ask questions about context or attempt
to bring things back to regular “conversation”—what is the historical backdrop
of the issue at hand? What are the different sides? What are the points of
agreement, the baselines? What are the places of conflict? What were we talking
about to begin with? Those questions make sense for a while, but then, BOOM,
shade thrown on the person—how dare you speak out of turn, not following the
rules—and all hell breaks loose again.
When one knows there is risk in speaking, one learns to turn down
the volume, think strategically about when and where and how to speak. It is
labor, laborious, and over time it erodes the self, clips the tongue, blunts
Why should we care, if we’re not the ones being accused of speaking
out of turn?
For this, we have to go back to our original conceit, our aspirations for our society, our dreams that we refuse to get away from: “democratic,” “inclusive,” “harmonious,” “justice,” “equality.”
All of these ideals point to the centrality of rights to voice. A democratic society is one where
people have rights—substantive, and not just as formality—to have thoughts and
express them. A harmonious society requires safe spaces for diverse persons to
speak so that we can figure out how to live together. In an unjust world, and
that is the world in which we live, we have to make conscious and concerted
efforts to ensure the terrain of debate is open, is fair, is safe, so that
inequalities and injustice can be redressed. Drawing false
equivalence—pretending that ideas are neutral and that each one is already valued
equally as every other one—prevents the creation of space for addressing
inequalities. For all the ideals to come to fruition, the safety of a
discursive space for everyone, not just those high in the social hierarchy, is
a key condition. There is no public debate without public space, no new ideas
can be generated that help us live better together, if only some voices can
speak. Over time, as people stop ourselves before we have spoken, our muffled
thought and ringing silences constitute the public arena.
That “speaking out of turn” is a thing we can observe in
contemporary Singapore, that contentious issues quickly devolve into the
territory of singling out persons—naming of names and use of derogatory labels—tells
us that we are lacking in this substantive right to voice. This is disturbing.
We must watch how leaders do or do not single people out for speaking out of turn. We should see how they do or do not level the playing field for public discourse. We should look at how they do or do not step up to protect the Singaporeans they do not agree with, do not approve of, are ideologically opposed to. And then after we’re done glancing up, we should look to ourselves, and persist, recognizing that in a democratic society—the one we want to live in some day—there should be no such thing as speaking out of turn. Justice, equality, inclusion, harmony—these are just words, mere rhetoric, until there is a field on which these principles can live.
Around October 2018, I began to say no to further speaking invitations. I needed to get back to fieldwork and writing. In addition, to think/write, I need some quiet in my mind. When I spend too much time giving talks or in meetings, for days, sometimes weeks after, I continue to think about people’s questions and comments. These conversations are important for generating ideas, but by late 2018, they were threatening to overwhelm and I could not hear myself think.
I still said yes to a few things, such as the “Singaporean Researchers Global Summit” organized by the National University of Singapore (6-7 August 2019). I wanted to meet the early-career scholars, many still in graduate school, who would attend.
About two weeks beforehand, I read the program to get a sense of the overall shape of the event. I was given ten minutes to speak. Those two constraints were my starting points. Moreover, this ‘summer’, I had been thinking and writing about knowledge-production—public sociology, legibility and legitimacy, and collective action. At the center of these is the question of why be an academic at all. I ended up using my ten minutes to arrive at this question.
Ten minutes is not a lot, so the following should be read as work in progress. Despite the limited time, we—the session (a panel on “Social Inequality”) was chaired by Tan Tai Yong, and I spoke alongside Joseph Liow and Thang Leng Leng—heard excellent comments and questions. We couldn’t do justice to them; I include them at the end of this post, still unanswered. It seems to me these are not the sorts of questions I should be answering, alone, while sitting at my desk. Perhaps next time we meet then.
Inequality as analytical lens
If you attend a major Sociology conference, you’d be hard put to
find a panel titled “Social Inequality,” as this panel is titled.
This is not because sociologists aren’t interested in inequality,
but because we are so invested in it, it is so central to our discipline, that
“social inequality” would not be sufficiently descriptive for participants to
figure out which specific theoretical or empirical subject the panel is about
and how it fits in with their own interests. In other words, if you call a
panel “social inequality” at a sociology conference, you’ll attract either
everyone or no one at all. So instead, you have panels with titles like “Race,
Racism, and Health” or “Economic Sociology and New Mechanisms for the
Production of Inequality” or “Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity” or
“Macro-micro intersections of gender inequality” (all real titles from last
year’s American Sociological Association annual conference).
Each of the sessions embed within them questions about how
inequality manifests in society, how inequalities
of various types are reproduced, and
what implications inequalities have
on human society—on health outcomes, on social trust, on economic wellbeing, et
Inequality as a central empirical concern, and a starting theoretical lens for interrogating the social world,
is not limited of course to sociologists. Many of you are probably from the
humanities and social sciences—philosophy, literature, geography, history,
anthropology, political science, economics, psychology, et cetera—and your
disciplines also embed within them certain traditions of analyzing inequality.
At its core, attention to inequality contains two questions: first,
what is the field of power and politics in which any given case lies? Second,
what are the differential consequences for people and groups when the field of
power and politics is not flat?
Both of these questions translate into empirical attention to context—that is, to looking at any given issue or set of events within the context of larger historical phenomenon; paying attention to the social relations that exist within an empirical site and to various social actors within a certain field. It also means, then, that although the social, the economic, and the political are often discussed separately, centering inequality forces recognition of the ways in which these are analytical separations and that the social, the economic, and the political are not in fact separate in the real world.
We can see some contemporary examples that remind us of the urgency
of forefronting inequality and not separating analysis of the social, the
economic, and the political. Two sets of news we are bombarded by daily: the
rise of the populist right; second, the climate crisis. Scholars working on
these specific areas have pointed to inequality as both cause and effect. The
huge inequalities in income and wealth that have opened up over the past few
decades have seeded conditions for the breakdown of social solidarity and
trust, and enhanced opportunities for opportunists and demagogues. The effects
of the failures of capitalist systems, including the failures toward
sustainable development and conservation of natural resources, are not borne
equally, and it is the most marginalized in the world who are at the frontline
of having their lives and livelihoods deeply and negatively affected by the
These two examples remind us that ideas may be divisible but
empirical realities are not: the social, the political, the economic—these are
interconnected phenomena. Inequality as a lens forces the analysis on all at
one point or another. Importantly, too, questions about science and technology
on the one hand, and questions about humans and humanity on the other, really
cannot be addressed as if the first set are primary and the second set an
afterthought, the first set core and the second periphery.
I think this critical lens offered us by the tradition in our
disciplines of asking questions about inequality is more important and urgent
than ever in the world we live in. Questions about inequalities, whether along
lines of class, or race, or gender, or sexuality, should be asked in every
endeavor in knowledge production. And I mean this broadly—not just in the
humanities and social sciences, but also in the sciences and engineering.
If we look at the parallel sessions happening concurrently to this
one, for example—titled “Drug development” and “Smart nation”—I can think of
lots of questions that need to be asked which consider existing inequalities if
researchers on these subjects are trying to solve problems in the world. Which
diseases are prioritized in research? Whose bodies are taken to be the norms?
Who gets centered as smart in a smart nation, whose needs and intelligences get
relegated to the margins? These should not be afterthought questions if the
overall orientation of knowledge production is to improve human wellbeing for
all and not just for those whose wellbeing is already better than everyone
Given the urgency of contemporary problems, and given that
inequality as analytical lens has the potential to shape both our collective
understanding of problems and our imaginations of solutions, if we as academics
are not afraid to embrace the questions of inequality, humanities and social
science research and knowledge have central, not peripheral roles to play in
the contemporary world.
How are we to do this?
I think the first thing to do is to realize and acknowledge that
knowledge production too exists within a field of power. We do our work as
humanities or social science scholars in a context where we have to constantly
prove we deserve to exist, that we are useful
within relatively narrow parameters of what use-value is. In such a field, what
are we to do? We can keep folding ourselves into smaller and smaller pieces,
contort ourselves into the kind of academics we are supposed to be to be
legible in this country, trying to make ourselves worthy. Or we can band
together better, as scholars, and thinkers, and creators of knowledge, to create
stronger ties of solidarity and trust. I also think that we should try to
create alternative modes of legibility
for our collective worth. What would that look like?
Part of it is, I think, about building more genuine connections and links in our scholarship with each other, so that there are more opportunities for us to speak as collectives, articulating certain shared concerns as scholars, people with particular expertise about human societies. Fostering this will require changes to the way individual academics are rewarded or not, the kind of impact that is recognized as impact. It will also require the cultivation of a stronger sense that being a professor, particularly a tenured professor in a public university, is a privilege that should also come with certain sense of duty toward the greater good.
Second, I think we should build alternate
sources of legibility and legitimacy for our work. What I mean here is that we
must make our work—not just our findings, but the logic embedded in our
methodologies, and the ethical concerns implied by our research—part of the
knowledge that society has access to. Audiences that understand and appreciate
our modes of inquiry is what we need in order to naturalize the sense that all
kinds of research questions being asked today—about medicine, about AI, about
climate change—must prioritize questions of where human societies are at and
where we as humans are trying to go.
What are the channels to make our work legible in society? I am
personally interested in public writings and working with artists and activists
outside academia but I recognize that not everyone is keen on doing this type
of work and not every research area lends itself well to this sort of
translation. So I’d like to suggest, as other scholars who’ve written about
public sociology have suggested, that teaching is an area of work that most
academics also do. This is a very important space to build a public that appreciates
the importance of humanities and social science thinking, and to equip people
with some of the critical tools our disciplines offer. In the quest to become
world-class universities, we have tended to underthink our role as teachers. If
we can think of teaching not merely as preparing individual students for the
job market, but also about equipping a generation of young people with skills
for thinking critically about the world, with the tools and courage to ask uncomfortable
questions, with a sense that to be human in the world should entail asking
ethical questions, I think we can ourselves better appreciate the connections
between the different components of our work as scholars. We should insist on
taking teaching more seriously as an important site for generating legibility
for our forms of knowledge. Our students, when they go out into the work world,
should be bringing certain lenses and tools with them. In the ideal scenario, they
should be insisting, in whatever jobs they are in, that empirical evidence
matters, that diverse viewpoints matter, that questions about power and
inequality matter. This is the dream embedded in liberal education: that
knowledge has the capacity to shape people to behave better, and that actions
ought to be considered and evidence-based and encompass diverse viewpoints. This
is not an easy dream to maintain in the contemporary context, but if university
professors don’t do it, don’t defend this worldview, I don’t know who will.
I’ll end by saying that when I look at the upheavals we are seeing around the world, and some of the tensions within Singapore society, I see that we as academics, as knowledge producers are very much at risk. The rage at elites, and the reactions against knowledge and rationality, are threats to our society as well as to our enterprise, even if we don’t identify as or with elites. If we want our knowledge to be useful to society, to the world we live in, we have to work harder to create public understanding and appreciation for it. As you do your research, finish up your dissertations, secure jobs, jump through hoops to earn tenure, the pull you will feel will primarily be toward trying to be legible to the university, legible to state funding agencies, legible to external reviewers in places like the U.S. Being legible in these ways will not make you legible to the larger society. I understand this pull well, and I am urging you to not be sucked in by it. Play your game but keep your eye on the larger field, on your larger purpose and roles as a scholar. Collectively, maybe we can begin to move the lens of inequality from the periphery into the center.
Questions from the audience
How do we manage the many
different tasks (you outline) as academics?
What can we do as teachers? How
should we think about our roles as teachers in university?
What can researchers in other
(e.g. STEM) disciplines do when it comes to inequalities?
What are questions about
inequality that should be asked but have not been asked by researchers?
How do we build audiences for
academic work and in particular how do we reach audiences who may not want to
How can academics band together
to demand better, more transparent, data from the state?
When the lowest income households have higher expenditure than income, what does this imply about inequality and unmet needs? How do we put trends of mobile phone and aircon ownership in perspective? Ng Kok Hoe and Teo You Yenn offer insight into the latest household income and expenditure data.
What do these observations imply about whether everyone in Singapore can meet their basic needs? What do they tell us about inequality?
Are needs going unmet?
The most significant issue to confront is whether people in the lowest income quintile group have sufficient income to meet their basic needs, as this has long-term consequences for their well-being.
In ongoing research, one of us has found a strong social norm–present in families of all income levels–to spend “within means,” and a strong desire to save. This helps to explain why most households have lower expenditure than income. This norm is shared by those who earn among the lowest 20%; indeed earlier research (Teo You Yenn) has found that people with low incomes are careful about spending. They already forego spending on certain things that higher-income people take for granted as basic needs, with negative long-term consequences—buying cheaper, less nutritious food; delaying seeing doctors; cheaper and less tuition for kids.
While attention is sometimes drawn to items like the mobile phone, they do not necessarily make a huge difference to expenditure. In 2017/18, spending on mobile phone services made up just 3% of the monthly expenditure of households in the lowest income quintile group. Instead, necessities like food and transport continue to be the largest items. Compared to the previous Household Expenditure Survey in 2012/13, it is healthcare spending that has increased the most for these low-income households, from 7% to 10% of total expenditure.
The proportion of actual monthly spending for social and recreational purposes generally falls below what–according to elderly participants in our research on minimum income standards–is necessary to allow a sense of belonging, social participation, and engagement in cultural practices. The lowest-income households spend the least in this area, which raises concerns about their inclusion as members of society.
Unequal capacities to save
Expenditure outpacing income also implies insufficient capacity to save and plan for the future, with long-term negative consequences for meeting needs during old age. If there are inequalities in the capacity to save and plan, a social welfare system which ties outcomes to this capacity will tend to reproduce inequality in other areas. In Singapore, for instance, access to retirement security is underpinned by individual savings, access to housing by individual wealth accumulation, and quality of children’s education by individual investment. In other words, inequalities in income translates to unequal access to certain public goods.
An incapacity to save also means that families which are otherwise generally stable can be easily thrown into crisis by unforeseen occurrences such as an illness, accident, job loss, or the arrival of a child who has special needs. This also raises the question of whether our policies can adequately buffer lower income families against these ordinary and yet unpredictable risks.
What counts as needs?
Another major issue raised by the expenditure data is the definition of basic needs. It is important for us to understand what are considered basic needs by members of society at a particular point in time, and the extent to which these needs are being met, especially among lower-income groups. The income and expenditure data should be compared with Minimum Income Standards (MIS) or other similar benchmarks of what people need for a basic standard of living in Singapore today. While we have carried out MIS research in relation to older households, we intend to replicate this research across other household types.
Expenditure data alone may give us insights into what is most commonly owned or purchased, but it may fail to account for needs which people currently forego. What people need must not be conflated with what people can afford. Moreover, unlike qualitative research using the MIS method, expenditure data alone cannot reflect and take into account the rationales and social norms that explain why something is a need.
Needs evolve with society
What constitutes ‘needs’ are context specific, and can and do change over time.
We must recognise that as a society’s living standards and lifestyles change, so too do the requirements for belonging and participating in society. Something which was not a basic need before may have become a basic need now because not having that item would make it difficult for someone to participate in society.
In our research into basic needs for older households, for example, our respondents reminded us that they did not consider mobile phones and internet access to be basic ten years ago. But in Singapore today, one would struggle to function in society without them. Many day-to-day transactions and interactions presume that people have internet access. On the other hand, newspaper subscriptions are no longer considered needs. Items that used to be part of belonging and participation in society may cease to be necessary as society changes. To keep pace with these changes, it is important that research into the definition of needs is updated on a regular basis.
It is clear that income is a key means of meeting needs and thus a central determinant of well-being in Singapore today. To ensure everyone has sufficient income to meet basic needs, as a society, we need to review wages and redistribution–taxing and spending. To peg such policies to clear standards of adequate well-being, we also need a well-defined and regularly updated baseline of basic needs.